There is something about Alaska that attracts a special kind of person. Many people move or live there for its rugged landscape and spectacular wildlife. They have America’s last true wilderness on their doorstep.
But this land of natural beauty has become tarnished, intoxicated and corrupted by oil.
It takes an extraordinary person to stand up to the might and dirty politics of the oil industry, especially one that became embroiled in what many consider to be America’s greatest natural disaster: the Exxon Valdez.
Before and since that day over twenty years ago, there are many people who exposed the lies of Big Oil, but I have always taken inspiration from the work and raw courage of three people I call heroes, and I don’t use that term lightly: Dan Lawn, Dr. Riki Ott and Professor Rick Steiner.
These people are heroes in the true sense of the word, in that they have consistently and unswervingly fought the powerful oil industry and often a state government that sits comfortably and snugly in its pocket.
Often at huge personal and professional risk, they continue to speak truth to power.
For thirty years, Rick has been a marine conservation professor at the University of Alaska and during that time he has been a consistent critic of the oil industry and its impact on marine environment.
As he had done so many times before, Rick spoke out against oil development – this time in the Bristol Bay region. Rick signed a letter and spoke at a press conference that challenged a 2008 symposium, sponsored by Shell oil and Alaska Sea Grant, which had alleged that “oil and fish can co-exist” in Bristol Bay.
As any marine conversationalist will tell you oil and the fragile waters of the Arctic do not mix. As Rick says: “The area proposed for offshore drilling is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world, supporting some of the most abundant populations of marine mammals, seabirds, crab, bottom fish, and salmon anywhere.”
He adds: “The combined impacts and risks of noise, habitat damage, operational discharges, pipelines, terminals, and tanker traffic are enough reason to halt the project.”
Rick’s opposition to the Bristol Bay development was the straw that broke the camel’s back. As Rick says: “University administrators had warned me for years not to “advocate” conservation, and not to “criticize state government as that is where we get our money.””
But as a tenured professor, he ignored the warnings and thought his job was safe, but for speaking the truth once again Rick was now in deep trouble.
“After I raised these concerns, university administrators met with senior officials at NOAA headquarters and agreed to punish me by terminating the Sea Grant funding I’d had for 30 years. They said, they “had a problem” with me and my environmental “advocacy,” and that I could “cause problems nationally,”” he recalls.
As far as Rick knows, this is the first time ever that an American university faculty member has lost federal funding because of public comments.
He points out the emphatic contradiction in what the University was saying: it is OK to advocate industrial development but not conservation.
This is yet another example of the corruption of oil money. The University of Alaska receives, directly and indirectly, about $300 million per year from the oil industry.
Having lost his funding, Rick says, “a deliberate decision had already been made in the university to force me out”.
As an added incentive they terminated his office lease too.
Sure he could no longer do his conservation work freely within such a repressive university environment, Rick’s only course of action was to resign.
In so doing, the University of Alaska lost one of its most respected and trusted academics. And the smell of oil corruption in the state and along the corrridors of academia just got worse.
Rick offers a warning to those who conspired against him: “NOAA, university administrators, and their industry puppet-masters know what they did here is wrong. Instead of celebrating, they would be well advised to heed a time-tested lesson of history — as the powerful seek to silence truth and dissent, truth and dissent only become more powerful.”